July 11, 2012
On Choosing Our Leaders – D’var Torah Pinchas
Is American Democracy, our tradition of free elections and our advancement as an enlightened society being compromised by big money in politics and an aversion to facts and rational discourse?
I believe it is, and so what constitutes “enlightened leadership” becomes a central question as we anticipate going to the polls in November. Ever the optimist, I believe that good leaders can make a difference.
In their book “A Hidden Light: Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism,” Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez have written:
“If we think in terms of Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field and Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, we can see how individual shifts in consciousness may have an impact on the greater field of consciousness…as major shifts occur in the thoughts and feelings of individuals or groups of individuals, a ripple-effect is sent through the entire field, causing tiny adjustments and adaptations throughout.” (p. 72)
I mention all this because in this week’s Torah portion Pinchas we learn of the first significant transference of leadership and power in Jewish history. Aaron and Miriam have died, and Moses is fast approaching the end of his life. God singles out Joshua to assume leadership from Moses (Numbers 17:16-18). In verse 16 we read:
“Yifkod YHVH Elohei ruchot l’chol basar ish al ha-eidah - “May YHVH, God of the spirits of all flesh appoint a leader over the community.”
Note that ruchot (spirits) is a plural form, not singular. It is not written Elohei ruach l’chol basar, “God the SPIRIT of all flesh”, rather the “spirits” of all flesh.
The Talmud offers this famous story to explain:
“Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, Shammai asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our view,’ and Hillel contending, ‘The law is in agreement with our view.’ Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) announced, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim (‘The utterances of these and those are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.’ Because they [Hillel] were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and they were even so humble as to mention the opinions of the School of Shammai before their own.” (Talmud, Eruvin 13b)
From this we derive four principle characteristics of the enlightened leader:
 Acknowledgment of Diversity of Opinion – No one human being can know the complete Truth, which is why Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cook, in emphasizing the importance of argument and debate among the sages, cited Talmud Berachot 64a, “Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: “Chachamim marbim shalom.” Torah Scholars increase peace in the world.”
 The Importance of Kindness and Modesty - The opinions offered by the School of Hillel were followed because Hillel’s disciples (emulating their mentor) strove to personify the virtues of kindness and modesty towards their adversaries thus enabling compromise and the development of consensus for the sake of the common good.
 The Endorsement of Tolerance – Rashi comments on Numbers 27:16, saying: “Appoint over them a leader who will be tolerant of everyone, each in accordance with his understanding.”
 The Need to Transcend Partisanship –Talmud B’rachot 58a says: “If one sees a gathering of 600,000 Jews or more, [the leader] must recite the blessing – ‘Praised be God, the Wise One of Mysteries.’” (See also Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Torah Commentary on Pinchas in this week’s Jerusalem Post - http://www.jpost.com/LandedPages/PrintArticle.aspx?id=180132). We learn from this that it is impossible to truly know God’s will. Anyone who claims such knowledge is not only a false prophet but an idolater guilty of the worst hubris.
In sum, Jewish tradition requires in our leaders knowledge, wisdom, vision, and the virtues of kindness, modesty, open-mindedness, tolerance, and willingness to acknowledge truth coming even from one’s most ardent adversary.
I believe that there are such leaders currently serving in American politics, and many face tough reelection fights because of the enormous funding of their opponents, many of whom do not possess the knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, experience, vision, or virtues that our tradition requires of our leaders.
As we move towards November, it would do us well to consider what qualifications for high public office Judaism sets as a standard.